Gender Equality And The Invisible Problem In The Workplace

In a small, unassuming room on a university campus in the mid ’80s, one man sat amongst eleven women. They were meeting to discuss a relatively new movement that was emerging, called feminism.

During the meeting the man overheard a side conversation between two of the women. The more vocal of the two was speaking on behalf of all women, explaining how they faced the same oppression by the patriarchy and needed to stand united to bring about change. The other woman’s response surprised the man, because she disagreed. She asked the other woman a simple question: “What do you see when you look in the mirror?”

“A woman,” was her reply.

It was the counter reply that stunned the man. She explained the difference, “When I wake up in the morning, if I look in the mirror, I see a black woman. To me, race is visible, but to you, it’s invisible.”

The two women were from different races, one was white, the privileged race at the time, and the other was black, a race still fighting for equal privileges and against discrimination. 

The black woman continued, explaining, “That’s how privilege works. Privilege is invisible to those who have it. It’s a luxury. The white people sitting in this room do not to have to think about race every split-second of their lives.”

In hearing this, the man (Michael Kimmel) put his head in his hands and groaned. When asked by the woman what was wrong, he replied that when he looked in the mirror, he saw a human being. Not a man, because, he realized, being a man was a privilege in society and so it was invisible to him; he simply saw a human being.

In today’s workplace, woman are still fighting for equality. For many males, it’s a cause that somewhat confuses them, and I don’t think it’s uncommon for many men to play out unspoken thoughts in their heads: What’s the problem? Aren’t we already equal? Why do we need to talk about it again? I don’t see why women keep making a big deal about it? Just get over it already. Men matter as well. If you want to be equal, stop making a big deal about being a woman and just get on with business.

We can’t see our way out of the problem

Yet the problem is not about thoughts, it’s not about morals or character; it’s ultimately about sight.

Last year a BBC presenter, John Inverdale, interviewed Andy Murray about winning his second gold medal at the Olympics, saying, “You’re the first person to ever win two Olympic tennis gold medals, that’s an extraordinary feat, isn’t it?”

Murray replied that, actually, both William’s sisters had already won four gold medals each.

First person to win two gold medals? When privilege is invisible, it might seem that way—but it is not that way, and we need to work together to get more clarity on the issue of gender equality.

Like Andy Murray, there is a growing openness by men to call out gender bias and be part of the solution of equality; yet, for many, even when they want to champion equality there’s also an ongoing misunderstanding about what it means for everyone to experience equality in the workplace. Privilege is invisible, and when you have privilege it makes it very challenging to see the issue clearly. This is one of the reasons some male colleagues misinterpret their female counterparts who are vocal about the issue. So if we all want to get to the solution, while also acknowledging the challenge of the blind spot that privilege creates, how do we get there?

Are we willing to listen deeply?

I think it starts by listening to female advocates for diversity and women’s rights in the workplace, not with the intention to reply with a counter argument, but to listen deeply. If we are prepared to listen deeply in order to learn rather than reply, we can move forward with greater clarity towards real solutions.

We need to acknowledge we can’t see or think our way out of the problem, rather, the solution lies in our willingness to listen; to listen deeply to one another. From there, we have the opportunity to make progress together, not as men, not as women, but as human beings.

Article by Mick Mooney. Mick is an author and corporate trainer on business storytelling, effective communication, and empowering emotional intelligence in leaders.